Friday, 23 September 2011

Festival and Future on Arran

Festival and future

It’s been quite a week, here on Arran. The annual McLellan Arts Festival has seen an Opera Gala, a performance of the Mozart Requiem, a night of archive film about Arran and a poetry get-together featuring Alexander Hutchison and five local poets. 12 post-grad opera students from the Royal Northern College of Music have been here for master classes with their tutors. Multitudes have been handsomely fed by two inventive Arran women, one of whom in fact is Dutch and the other Latvian. We’re nothing if not cosmopolitan.

Robert McLellan was an Arran-based poet and playwright whose centenary sparked the first festival, with such success that it’s gone on ever since.  This year, the outlook was grim. Grants were receding like a balding man’s hairline, and the only option was to see what we could find from our own resources. Poets were no problem. Arran is full of poets. It’s quite possible we’ll start getting poetry tourism, in the same way that people go to Ailsa Craig to look at the gannets, with the advantage that poets are for the most part quieter and less messy. There’s no shortage of musicians on the island, either, and there are countless artists and crafts people. The Royal Northern College is ‘part of the family’ as one of its tutors lives here. And of course, there is the interested public. We had not expected that 200 people would cram into Corrie Hall for an evening of historic Arran film, or that the Community Theatre would be packed solid with people eager to listen to operatic arias. Astonishingly, when one island resident heard of the local fund for a dreamed-of grand piano, he came up with the total cost, and the festival was enhanced by a gleaming black Kawai.

Arran has the huge benefit of oddball people who are willing to chip in their ideas and abilities. Cash isn’t the point – we are here because of the island itself. Last winter in the icy, treacherously sloping Co-op car-park, a woman turned with a contented sigh from gazing at Goat Fell, white against a blue sky. ‘Aren’t we lucky!’ she said. Yes. We all share that contentment – but what makes it active is the input of Arran’s people. David Cameron was perhaps feeling his way round some such concept when he first dreamed up his Big Society catch phrase. Arran’s society is not big – just 5,000, fewer than in the average mainland town. Paid jobs are in short supply, so a lot of people are self-employed. The average income is ludicrously low if you discount retired residents who have had a well-paid career elsewhere, but our terms of success are not cash-based. Values balance in a different way. Time and transport are given freely. Petrol is £1.50 a litre on Arran, but we share cars whenever we can, and in return for work and constructive imagination, we enjoy a cultural life that would cost a fortune on the mainland.

The Government evidently sees Britain’s population as an element in the notional balance sheet, (now deep in the red) and encourages us to purchase goods. Nothing much else about us matters, which is why all forms of social support are being withdrawn. All the Arran people I know dissent from this view, since it is obvious that cuts leave people with nothing to spend. We dissent, too, from being corralled into mindless obedience, and from an education system that increasingly encourages unthinking conformity.

Here, of course, lies the government’s central paradox. On one hand, they are all for free enterprise and self-help. On the other, they dislike the expression of opinion and dissent, as we saw from the hysterical response to the foreseeable London riots. We are supposed to be enterprisingly obedient. It’s a tautological impossibility, but that doesn’t seem to have occurred to them. Neither has the understanding that independent, maverick thinkers are likely to be the best survivors when it all goes wrong – which it will. Oil is on the way out, and the current desperate scratching around in shale and tar sands won’t help for long. The Scottish government knows this, as its sustainable energy programme shows, but Westminster continues in its purblind way, as though kerosene-guzzling air transport will always be on hand to bring us cheap food from all over the world. Sooner or later, it won’t. At that point, we are going to need self-reliant people with a good grasp of practicalities and an independent outlook. Our children need to be learning right now the skills of intelligent imagination and ‘out of the box’ thinking – but the Coalition is keen on the box. Its restrictive corners creep closer every day. As a small example, students at the West of Scotland University are not allowed to put paper notices or announcements on the boards in the communal areas. Electronic boards are provided, since they do not mess up the architectural concept – but nobody reads them. The same is true, to our exasperation, of the tourist board in Brodick. No hand-written flyers allowed – they make the place look untidy. But untidiness is part of the great compost-heap of entropy. It is a direct expression of feeling and ideas, and without it, we are belittled. Wordsworth knew it all those years ago when he railed against restrictive schooling. ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close/ Upon the growing Boy.’

Arran, so far, maintains a sublime indifference to the official box. High winds and rough seas can stop the boats and cover the roads in snow, and do so at their own sweet will. They impose a discipline that is broader and more fundamental than any notional prison-house. Long may it last.

Alison Prince

Monday, 19 September 2011

Six Degrees of Separation

Linda and I caught the airport bus from the Belgrade Continental Hotel this morning at 5.45am.  Bleary-eyed from last night’s farewells we roamed around the glare of the early morning terminal in search of coffee, trying not to think of the ten hours travel still ahead of us or how little sleep each of us had managed the night before.

Charlie Foran of PEN Canada had come on a different bus but I stumbled across him in one of the soulless airport cafes looking as zombie-fied as I felt.  I had met Charlie in Tokyo last year and immediately liked his conversation and sense of humour.  Earlier in the week he’d sniffed out a lurid story about our hotel, that the Serbian nationalist thug Arkan had been assassinated in the lobby of the Continental.  You may remember him: Arkan was a brazen gangster whose murderous nature was legitimised by Milosevic during the civil war, famously photographed holding two tiger cubs by the scruff of the neck as his balaclavaed henchmen stood behind with their Kalashnikovs across their chests.  He was shot at point blank range by four young men who had just emerged from the hotel gym, and I have to confess I enjoyed Charlie’s story as it bestowed an otherwise unremarkable venue with a touch of black glamour.

We’d had a few interesting conversations over the course of the week here, ranging from Murakami’s latest epic novel to the self-loathing that bubbles up when writers don't write, and we soon fell into another at this final, chance meeting.  Charlie was working on his laptop when I sat down and we were soon talking about the blogosphere.  I told him I was blogging for the first time ever and had mentioned his fellow countryman Michael Ignatieff in a previous entry, criticising his continued justification of the invasion of Iraq.   Charlie, as chance would have it, is in the process of putting together an event in Toronto later this month where the esteemed philosopher will debate with another of his trade.  Mr Ignatieff is not so popular in Canada these days since he returned to his native shores to lead the Liberal Party to an election humiliation, losing more than 90 of the 130 seats they had held.  Seems his erudite discourse couldn’t withstand people telling him he was a big useless windbag, as people tend to do when addressing politicians, though in his defence I guess Mr Ignatieff wouldn’t have had much experience of that kind of heckle when lecturing PHD students at the blue chip institutions like Oxford and Harvard.

I explained to Charlie I’d picked out Ignatieff because I'd watched his interesting documentaries for the BBC in the 90s, and was truly disappointed when he became one of the “big brains” who advocated the use of waterboarding following 9/11, deploying all his impressive intellectual skills to strip the argument down to Dick Cheney’s favoured scenario – i.e. If you had twenty-four hours to find a massive bomb that would wipe out an entire city, then you would do whatever was necessary to extract the information from any suspect you had in custody.  Crass caricatures are the stuff of politicians but we expect better from philosophers, or I do anyway.  Charlie reminded me that Ignatieff subsequently apologised for taking this position – just prior to facing his opponents before the Canadian electorate, funnily enough – using his best sophistry to explain how his views became distorted when he got caught up in the fevered outrage following 9/11.  Strangely he didn’t seem to appreciate the irony of his recantation – i.e. under pressure the good professor’s reasoned, moral humanitarian stance went right out of the window.  Of course, the pressure he endured was somewhat less extreme than a torture victim might feel as gallons of officially sanctioned water cascade over his face to convince him he is drowning.  While intellectually he might reason international law and human rights institutions will prevent his captors from actually drowning him, their screaming in his ear and his own panicked instincts might just compel him to alter his stance of not speaking, whether or not he has anything of value to say in the situation.  He might actually begin to blurt out whatever he thinks his tormentors want to hear, simply to make them stop – the very reason, in fact, torture is redundant not just morally but also practically.

In a way I’m kind of relieved the learned professor didn’t see that connection; comparing his mental stress to that of someone who endured waterboarding might be more than I could stomach.

I would have loved to continue talking with Charlie but my flight was being called so we shook hands and embraced and said we’d stay in touch.  I hope we do.  PEN is many things – a UN-recognised NGO, a leading human rights organisation, an institution promoting literature and literacy as a force for peace and democracy – but above all it is a community of writers.  Writing is often a pretty lonely business, so knowing others are in the club and going through the same things is something to hold on to.

This is my final blog on the 77th PEN Congress.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them and living them.

Drew Campbell
President, Scottish PEN
Scottish PEN: For Free Expression, for Scottish Literature, an International Voice.

The Good Guys

Larry Siems is one of the good guys.  He’s worked for PEN America and on Freedom to Write programmes for the best part of twenty years and, for me, he’s one of the moral touchstones of PEN International.

And good company too.  The other night Linda, Larry and I went along with five Norwegians – a fine seafaring nation – to enjoy a gentle boat trip along Belgrade's confluence of the Sava and the Danube.  We drank and laughed and watched a red sun set and a full moon rise.  Trine Kleven talked about the influence of the Norse language, Carl Morten Iverson evaluated the local beer, while Anders Heger – Norwegian PEN President and another of my touchstones – regaled us with tall, terrifying tales of his nautical adventures.  There were two Elizabeths present also, one of whom is married to an Aberdonian and mimics the accent pretty well.  It was a simple, wonderful evening but as the boat turned to begin the return journey conversation drifted to events this summer in Norway.  All had been shocked.  All were moved by the response of the Norwegian people, the coming together, the restatement of belief in human rights and democracy, the determination not to be held hostage as a nation by the actions of one sickeningly disturbed mind.  Our friends' justified pride in their country’s reaction was clear but, rightly, they didn’t want to dwell on it any longer so we moved on to more beer, increasingly puerile jokes about certain esteemed figures, and a little bit of soothing, harmless gossip.

Back on shore Larry mentioned The Torture Report, a new book he’s about to publish focusing on key cases from Guantanamo Bay and the perversions of the American justice system that ensued.  This led to talk about the writers and intellectuals who had supported the invasion of Iraq and who, ten years after 9/11, still cannot bring themselves to admit they might just have got it wrong – Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff and the rest.  We do not permit politicians space to admit mistakes of such – any – magnitude, partly because power requires the illusion of certainty, partly because they calculate the proportion of known facts to bellicose propaganda, partly because they have actual and legal responsibility.  Writers and journalists, however, have a moral responsibility.  They – we – do much to shape the landscape of opinion that allows politicians to act, so it behoves these great minds and clever wordsmiths to reflect with a degree of moral honesty on their past pronouncements.  Many, it would appear, haven’t got the balls.
At breakfast this morning Larry told me how he walked alone around Belgrade last night and in the middle of the old town found the Ministry of Defence HQ bombed by NATO during the Kosovo intervention of 1999, an act justified and widely applauded by the human rights lobby.  The Serbians have left the building exactly as it was, unrepaired, a strafed and crumbling monument to... well, take your pick.  Serbian nationalism?  The unintended consequences of our actions?  Moral certainty?

Larry has been wrestling with this all week.  As I said, he’s one of the good guys.

Drew Campbell

Village People

So much happens in and around the Congress floor it’s impossible to capture it all in a short blog such as this.  One Brazilian delegate stopped me in the corridor and handed me a biography of a Scots-born woman called Maria or Mary Dundas.  Her first husband was a Scottish sailor / spy called Thomas Graham and her second seemed to be the first king of Brazil following its independence from Portugal around  1810 (or maybe she was his mistress, this was all pretty difficult to follow).  I have to admit I’d never heard of her before but it sounds like a remarkable story, so any of our members who reads Portuguese please get in touch and the book is yours – so long as you tell me what happened!

A conversation with a Dutch delegate about child abuse in the Catholic church led to our exchanging short stories we had each written on the subject.  Fortunately Manon Uphoff’s story was beautifully translated into English so I could enjoy the tight, dark prose and strange, blank story, disturbing undertones notwithstanding.  It is times like this my linguistic limitations – i.e. an ‘O’ grade German from thirty years ago – make me feel more than a little ashamed.  Most here write and speak so fluently in English, and while I appreciate the incentive is greater when your native tongue in not the lingua franca of the world, I can’t help feeling the mind-expanding benefits of learning another language are lost to so much of our population that we are in many ways poorer for it.

These encounters illustrate one of the many things PEN International Congress is: the Global Village at its annual storytellers’ fete.  Writers from all four corners coming together to debate, discuss, exchange and argue, to play, talk, think and just enjoy each other’s stories.  We all come away opened up to broader horizons and new ways of looking at the world, usually leaving the host city a little enriched for the experience.

This year Scottish PEN indicated our interest in hosting this incredible gathering of the global village in Edinburgh, a world city of literature, and spiritual home to so many characters of worldwide renown: Clarinda, Ivanhoe, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Jekyll, Rent Boy, Rebus, Mme. Ramotswe, Harry Potter and many, many more.  Everyone we spoke to expressed enthusiasm for the idea, and we were overwhelmed with kind words for Edinburgh, Scotland, Scottish history and Scottish literature. 

So, in 2014 or 2015, we want to bring the global village to our home, invite them to sit around our fire to drink and sing and argue and tell wonderful stories of life past, present and future. It will be a huge undertaking, but we can do it.  We should do it.  More than that – we owe it to ourselves.

Drew Campbell

Business Unusual

It occurs that I haven’t yet written anything about the actual business of PEN Congress in these blogs, which might leave the impression we were simply on a jaunt.  Actually the sessions, occasionally fascinating, can be pretty gruelling as we work through reports and resolutions, and Linda’s experience with WWF1 really helped as we discussed, debated and networked with others around the hall.  We made good contacts with Chinese poet Yang Lian who may be coming to work at Dundee University next year, and Katlin, the delegate from Estonian PEN, we hope will visit Moniack Mhor near Inverness in the spring.  Linda also got a pledge from Jordanian PEN to contribute to our online PENning magazine which Linda and Anne Clarke run through the Scottish PEN website – a marvellous piece of work – so watch out for the next edition.

We also met with Feggie Myphasi, the delegate from Malawian PEN, who told of us her voluntary work training teachers to use literature as part of children’s language and personal development.  It seems absurd to us, but previous Malawian governments had excluded study of literature from the school curriculum and since its reintroduction a decade ago there has been almost no investment in literary books or in equipping the teachers to encourage literature.  Scottish PEN helped to fund a pilot project with Malawian PEN about six years ago and this is what had got Feggie started, though they are desperately in need of more support.   Both Linda and I were very impressed by this bright and tenacious young woman, and have undertaken to look at ways Scottish PEN might be able to help again, though we stressed the funding we gave last time was part of a very special circumstance at that time and that we would be unlikely to match the previous level of support.  Nevertheless we will try: books and even small donations can go a long, long way to build literacy, and without literacy any notion of free expression or genuine participation in democracy is almost impossible.  The brilliant Margie Orford of South African PEN gave a stirring presentation on this very subject, and it has to be a real priority for development of PEN across the world.

Today was the final day of work and Scottish PEN moved two motions on the floor, and both passed comfortably, though not without opposition.  The first called for a working group to review the size and workings of the Board in order to make it more efficient and more representative, while the second motion was pushing for movement on the major fundraising proposal we presented and which was agreed in Brussels.  It is a detailed idea to forge collaborations with major artists to produce around a dozen emblematic empty chairs for a major art exhibit, which would then be sold to collectors and galleries to generate unrestricted funds for PEN International.  This latter proposal was really a pulling together of a lot of things going on around PEN internationally, hopefully to capitalise on the opportunity afforded by the fact the organisation is about to reach the venerable age of 90.  Scotland’s recent association with this potent symbol of free expression means we’re at risk of becoming known as the Chairs ‘R’ Us PEN centre within the international network but, hey, there’s worse things.

Linda attended a controversial emergency meeting of the Committee of Women Writers which passed a motion of no confidence in its convenor, an unprecedented move within PEN we’ll no doubt hear more about.  Later – and if you’ll forgive the slip into Glaswegian for a moment – there was a bit of a rammy over a daft rumour put about by one total heid-the-ba’ that the Writers for Peace conference was being moved away from Bled in Slovenia.  It was nonsense, but I confess a dark little part of me would have quite liked to see a Writers for Peace rumble.

PEN International started a new Executive Director on 1st August and she was introduced to Congress for the first time this week.  Laura McVeigh is a clever, vivacious and, I thought, quite steely young woman who wisely took a background role at the top table this week, preferring to spend her time mixing with the delegates and getting to know people.  The right way to introduce yourself, most agreed, and she certainly takes the best wishes of everyone at PEN around the world for the formidable task she has taken on.   I for one believe she’ll do very well.

Drew Campbell

1 Are you troubled by the image of the demure Linda Cracknell putting Hulk Hogan in a headlock at a bout of the WWF (World Wrestling Federation)?  Well, rest easy sports fans, the WWF above simply refers to the fact our Linda used to work for the World Wildlife Fund.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Letting the words flow in Belgrade Linda Cracknell

“Good morning, Scotland”. The greetings begin as at 9.30am as delegates pass Drew and myself, crossing the border between Scotland and Sierra Leone, on their way to their country's designated position. It's the first day that we've gathered as an Assembly and this year the alphabetical order has been reversed so that Zambia sit near the front, and Austria at the back of the large hall. For the next two and a half days this is where we'll be with our green, red and amber cards for any matters needing a vote. The first day's agenda ranges through a resolution to send a message of congratulation to Liu Xiaobo for his Nobel Prize, to the next ten years' strategy for International PEN as we head for our centenary, to the election of new Board members.

But inevitably in a gathering of of writers from nearly 90 countries, it's in the snatched moments between formalities that we build and renew relationships, share experience and find inspiration. The chatter starts well before 9.30, over breakfast. My own writing projects have already benefited from the internationalizing effect of the gathering. Professor Chris Wanjala of Nairobi University is reading the draft script of my next radio play to check for any false notes in the portrayal of my main character, a Kenyan. I last met Chris in Nairobi in 2009, when I discovered that he had once been a student of Jenni Calder's! Help has also been offered amongst the Norwegian contingent in finding a photo of Norway under Nazi occupation to illustrate my story of a walk in the footsteps of a friend's Norwegian father who had to escape through the mountains to Sweden during the war.

Being in this human cauldron of language and literature, sharing a commitment to freeing the word, also refreshes the sense of what we are doing at Scottish PEN. We are reminded of the need to rejuvenate the membership, reinforcing the sense of our strategy to develop university groups. Future featured writers fo our PENning online magazine suggest themselves to me. The initiatives of other centres inspire fresh ideas and assure us of the solidarity of our network.

There are also new issues to tackle, some urgently. I've been inclined to think of the new technologies as mostly a liberating force for literature and writers. In a workshop I attended today, some of the uses the PEN centres have made of the internet were showcased, such as Sweden’s excellent Dissident Blog, and Jordan's online magazine which offers a window into the controversies of the Arab world. Both are publishing what might otherwise be censored. Some writers in exile here have also spoken about the internet as a means of maintaining identity and links with homelands.

But new challenges to freedom of speech related to technology were starkly exposed at this meeting. In particular the tension between privacy and apparent creative freedom. Concerns included the opportunity for surveillance offered by web technology, currently being abused by authorities in China. Its control by the State was also highlighted as has been seen this year in Egypt when the internet was silenced at a critical moment in the uprising. And then there is the role of private enterprise, in particular the telecom companies, whose technology has assisted authorities in tracking individuals, for example in Belarus. We were also reminded that out use of the technology depends on mining in DR Congo and is a source of exploitation and conflict there. 'Blood on your phone' someone said, and chilled the room.

The need for International PEN to develop good practice guidelines and policy on this kept people talking and planning as the sun sank somewhere behind us. Beyond the glass and concrete of Belgrade's Continental Hotel, a fat yellow moon rose above the the old town and fort on the other side of the Cava river. Pavements radiated the day's heat into the bones of lolling stray dogs, trams rattled and rumbled over the bridges, and fishermen settled on the river bank for the night, beside the great moored up barges and floating restaurants. But inside the 77th International PEN Congress, the words and the talk flowed on.

A warm bath

After a long, heavy day at the 77th PEN Congress I decided to forego the cultural evening laid on by our hosts – with no reflection on our Serbian hosts, who have been excellent – and go for a quiet dinner alone to be followed by some personal reading and, hopefully, some work on my novel.  As I wandered into the restaurant, however, I found myself bumping into a couple of PEN delegates from Australia and New Zealand.  Half an hour later our table had accumulated other PEN stragglers from Turkey, Senegal and Somalia and a wonderful dinner ensued with conversation taking in African myths, post-Islamic philosophy, dreams and Antipodean opera.  I barely knew the names of any of my dinner companions before this evening but we all parted with embraces and the thought expressed by Nelson Wattie, our new Kiwi friend, that the evening had been like a warm bath for the mind.

Back in my room I skyped home then fell fast asleep around midnight, with no writing done.  Awoke at four thirty with my recently bathed mind feeling refreshed and spent two hours rewriting a chapter that had been bothering me.  Felt so good afterwards I went on to complete this little entry rather than try for an hour’s shuteye.  Going for an actual warm bath for the body now with the hope I don’t feel too exhausted at the Congress sessions later today.  Either way, it was worth it.

Drew Campbell

Cracked China

The business of a PEN Congress can be slow, ploughing through procedures required of a charity, receiving mandatory reports and so on, but within each day there are moments to treasure.  At the Writers-in-Prison Committee, where we play a very active role, there are messages from friends in the Independent Chinese PEN Centre thanking us for all our work around free expression, in particular our campaigns for Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia.  The surveillance apparatus of the Chinese government continues to grow but we hear stories of resilience, bravery and, above all, hope.

On 10th December 2010, as Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize was laid on an empty chair in Oslo, some PEN supporters gathered in a cafe in Beijing to enjoy the moment together, streaming the ceremony via the internet and so circumventing ‘The Great Firewall of China’.  After a short while the police arrived and announced the quiet celebration must end and the group arrested on no specific charge.   A large picture of Liu was on the wall and as they left to be processed at the station, the senior officer present asked who was in the picture and why they were celebrating him.   ‘That’s Liu Xiaobo, the first person from China ever to win the Nobel Prize for Peace,’ he was told.  The officer looked at him and said: ‘Then why are we arresting you?’

A few months later the world renowned artist Ai Weiwei, designer of Beijing’s famous “bird’s nest” Olympic stadium and a national hero in China, was detained because of his outspoken support for Liu Xiaobo.  It was not reported by official channels at first but within hours over 25 million messages had passed through Sina Weibo (the Chinese state-controlled version of Twitter) expressing outrage at this murky act of state paranoia.  The authorities were forced to issue a statement citing “tax irregularities” but despite their best efforts the tweeting continued throughout the weeks of Ai’s detention, adding internal pressures to the protests around the world. 

 The absence of Liu Xiaobo or any representative at the Nobel ceremony – the first occasion this had happened since the Nazis prevented Carl von Ossietzky receiving his award in 1936 – followed by the detention of Ai Weiwei just months later has seeped into the public consciousness of the West just as word has spread in China.  Silence can only last so long till somebody finally feels compelled to break it.

Drew Campbell

Touchdown in Belgrade

In the long descent to Belgrade airport a patchwork of little fields rolled out below us, a colourful quilt stitched with hamlets and smallholdings that gently remind me I know little of Serbia beyond its recent bloody history.  Insofar as I had thought about it at all I suppose I had expected great modern industrial farms but this pretty picture suggests an altogether gentler, more communal rural economy.  Preconceived notions of a place are often there whether you’re conscious of them or not.

Linda Cracknell and I are each attending our second PEN Congress – Linda was in Senegal in 2007, I was in Tokyo last year – and we’d chatted through the journey about our different experiences.  Each congress naturally assumes something of the character of the host city or nation, so we wonder what Belgrade will bring.

First it brings is a temperature of 33oC as we step off the aeroplane into a brazen heat.  I knew it would be hotter than Scotland at this time of year, of course, but I had expected something the early 20s.  Linda had more sensibly checked the actual forecast and packed accordingly whereas I don’t even have a pair of shorts!

Drew Campbell

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Brokebus Mountain

Brokebus Mountain
Wyoming, July 2011

We were in Annie Proulx country when our bus, full of scholars attending the 9th Walter Scott conference in Laramie, Wyoming, broke down 10,000 feet up in the Snowy Range. If the Man from Laramie could have met the Man from Abbotsford would they have had anything in common? Maybe more than one might think. They were both familiar with bandit country, and the former had a Scottish name – Will Lockhart, played in Anthony Mann’s movie by James Stewart.

The Scott scholars got safely back to barbecued buffalo at the Laramie railroad depot, followed by the town’s annual rodeo. But the conference wasn’t all mountains and bronc-riding. There was a packed programme of lectures, panels and workshops bringing together over 100 participants from all over the world, including best-selling tartan-ripping novelist Diana Gabaldon whose plenary address followed mine, and Chris Harvie, MSP retired, who exuberantly performed, challenged and entertained.

North Platte River with Red Butte in the distance, a landmark on the Oregon Trail.
It was heartening to experience five days of international enthusiasm for the author of Waverley, and great to find the mention of Sir Walter at a Cheyenne ranch restaurant was rewarded with dinner on the house for four of us. This was an auspicious start to my post-conference trip giving talks on Frontier Scots to enthusiastic audiences who added considerably to my knowledge of Scots in Wyoming. At Casper, Bruce Richardson took me to the spot by the North Platte River where Robert Stuart (from Callander)  paused after his epic trek through the Rockies from the Pacific coast, the first white man to traverse the South Pass, later the main route for the wagon trains to Oregon and California. Lauren Perry, my graduate student driver on the trip, took me to Independence Rock, famed landmark on the Oregon Trail. The wagon ruts are still visible – and the mosquitoes are definitely hostile.

Last stop was the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, after a stunning drive through the Wind River canyon. It’s not hard to imagine Scott writing a Western resonant with descriptions of rolling prairie, strange rock formations and snow-capped mountains, and perhaps featuring William F Cody himself. Cowboy up, Sir Walter, as the conference proclaimed.     

A Wyoming frontier mobile library.

Jenni Calder

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Cathay Clips

Cathay clips

370kph……420kph…As the world’s fastest train accelerates, the Shanghai skyline tilts. Pinnacles of skyscrapers loom crazily towards us.

If the tilting “maglev”and the tower blocks represent the future of China, at ground level the past breaks through. Labyrinths littered with bikes, trikes, huts, tenements, washing lines and sorrowful birdcages. In the Marriage Park parents swap notes of their children’s ages, heights and incomes. In a kebab kiosk, skewered bugs wave forlorn wee legs.

The Great Wall

Public notices in Shanghai and Beijing are mostly bi-lingual. The Chinese reluctance to run translations past a native speaker makes for quaint poetry:
“Delicate grade A Office for sale.”
“Leave the commanding heights during a thunderstorm.”
“May civilization follow you!”

Hawkers home in on the rare Western tourists. Careless eye contact attracts long-term attention. One lady maintains a monologue with me throughout a three hour hike along the Great Wall. It works; eventually, wearily, we set to haggling over her souvenirs. For people averaging £60 a month it’s worthwhile investing an afternoon to earn that extra £10.

The devil finds no idle hands here. Working hours leave little time even for essentials. Commuters catnap on the metro station floor; shopkeepers behind their counters. After each 12 hour school day, pupils face 4 hours of homework. No opportunity for mischief – no need for a legal drinking age. On the other hand the China Daily reports a harrowing rate of teenage suicide.

Still, the young nurse their dreams. One 13-year-old imagines her ideal country. The same spread as Shanghai but with one - instead of 21 - million souls. Oil-wells to support the economy; plots of land for the poor. Animals and humans co-existing in harmony. As many children as you want.

The Party leaves its stamp here and there. Massive buildings with polished floors and obscure purposes.  Department stores where you queue serially for the invoice, the cash and the goods. An opera about an intellectual betraying a daughter of the revolution. The Shanghai Propaganda Gallery refers cautiously to the “mistake” of the Great Leap Forward and displays a poster showing Tibetans cheering Mao.

Old China hovers over the new reality street

To most Chinese, even those adult in 1989, Tiananmen Square is but an innocent tourist attraction: the world’s largest plaza, a source of pride, edged by Mao’s mausoleum, the Forbidden City and Parliament. A video-screen plays uplifting music to the scattered tourists. Solitary soldiers march with blank faces.

However, the boilersuits are history. City slickers dress to the nines. As do the city dogs: tiny jackets, baseball caps, backpacks. By-products of compulsory contraception.

Shanghai is balmy in spring. The polluted air sheds a peachy glow over the thousands of construction sites with their bamboo scaffolding. The sky is cloudless but never blue; the dimmed sun easy on the eye. By night, lovers stroll along the neon-lit riverbank beneath a tea-rose moon.

Mary McCabe